The Healing Hunt

The Healing Hunt

A Story by Courtney

A contemplative essay


The Healing Hunt


            There is something about spring that heals the deepest wounds. The soul dies a slow death, like leaves withering in the fall, shedding hopes one by one. Then, just when you think there is nothing left, life quickens once again. The days grow longer, the sun begins to shine, and new leaves bud until one day, you look up and the whole world is green once again. Spring is a time of rebirth after the long, living death of winter. There is something healing about this time of year, something that soothes the deepest hurts. It is the time I go hunting morels, roaming the woods like the wild creature I had been in my youth.

            The mechanical roar of the ATV beneath me tore through the sleepy stillness of the countryside. Wind pulls at my clothes and hair, buffering me as I rode, clutching the seat between my knees as the little rider bucked beneath me over uneven terrain. The two dogs were bounding beside me, the sun rippling off black fur. The path back to the farm was over a mile and a half back, and no longer a distance I could manage on my own two feet. But I longed for the woods, craved the freedom of the wilderness I had known so well as a child. After the long stillness of winter, I needed to feel the movement of wind through the trees.

            Stopping at the edge of the wood, I unstrapped a cane and a green cloth grocery bag from the cargo rack and dismounted. The bag contained nothing more than the full water bottle I carried for the dogs and the hopes of a good harvest. The things I carried for myself weighted more in my heart then they did in my bag.

            The breath of the dogs was loud in the sudden stillness, their tongues curling with exertion. I offered each the water bottle in turn, and they drank with eager pleasure before hurrying away to inspect the underbrush at the tree line. I followed behind them, searching for a good place to enter the woods. When I was younger, I would have barged straight through the thorns, but my injured ankle demanded more care. It was the essence of how my approach to life has altered so many years later.

            It wasn't long before I found what I was looking for: a tree that had fallen over a tangle of brambles, its branches pressing the thorny vines to the ground. Leaves rustled and hidden twigs snapped beneath my feet as I made my clumsy way deeper into the cool shade of the woods. I remembered running through these woods as a child, weaving through trees and dodging low branches by instinct, leaping over fallen logs and crashing through patches of thorns with reckless abandon. It was a dance I had forgotten, the steps now impossible with my lame leg.

            My cane sinks deep into the soft carpet of leaves and dark earth, unable to help support my weight. Each step on my injured ankle sends a swirl of bright pain through my thoughts, and the whole wood seemed to be holding its breath as I stepped into it. Even the wind stilled in the trees. It was the silence of an old friend, pausing to stare at me as I approached for the first time in years.

            Nature! She was a gentle friend, kind and giving on a warm, sunny afternoon in the springtime, and I was glad to be back in her embrace. There is something primal about returning to the woods, a deeply borne instinct that thrives there.

            The air of the woods is a heady thing, thick and earthy and green. It fills the body with strength while calming the mind from the wildest turmoil of thought. There is the scent of wet earth and decaying leaves overriding the delicate fragrance of living plants. The wind starts to blow again, a gentle breath that carries with it the sharp scent of new life, and the trees whisper with the delight of its promise.

            I made my slow way through the light underbrush to the horse trail my mother and I had blazed years ago. There were deer tracks in the sandy soil, and I was careful not to disturb them as I made my way up the north-facing slope. At the top of the ridge I rested, looking out across the long berm, towards the southwestern fields below. New green growth gave a blush of color to last year's gray scrub along the ridge, and showed up in faint lines in the dark soil of the fields beyond.

            The morel mushrooms I sought grew on the south-facing slopes for a few weeks in late April and early May. The path down on that side was light and sandy, full of limestone, very unlike the dark, rich soil of the northern side. The little patch of ground-hugging cacti make me smile as I pass, remembering the time I had fallen into those sharp spines so long ago.

            I slip near the bottom of the slope, my sneakers skidding on wet leaves, landing hard on my hands and knees in the damp carpet. The dogs are there at once, all lapping tongues and wriggling fur. I pet each one, pressing on their backs as I regain my feet. They stare up at me, brown eyes soft with love and concern. To reassure them, I pull out the water bottle and give them each another drink. They lap at the nozzle in turn then stare up at me with gratitude before hurrying off into the underbrush to chase ghostly trails of mysterious scent.

            The deep green growth is much thicker on this side of the slope, growing in riotous color over a thick carpet of fallen leaves. The foliage is primarily Mayapple, their broad green leaves and narrow stalks looking like so many tiny palm trees. I made my way off the path into the miniature forest, using my cane to gently sweep aside the growth as I went.

            When looking for morels, everyone has an opinion on where to find them; in apple groves, by dead elms, around dead oak trees, near old ash, poplar, or elm trees. I don't care. I find them where I find them. For me, it's not about finding the mushrooms, it's about the hike through the wood and the freedom I find there. I am happy to just be there; finding morels is just a bonus.

            For two hundred thousand years, people have lived as hunter-gatherers. How many of my ancestors had gone out looking for this same mushroom on this day, in years past? Searching in the woods for sustenance satisfies a deep, primal part of me.

            A jolt of triumph spears through me as I spot my first cluster of mushrooms of the season. They're no bigger than my thumb, three little cone-shaped, brownish-gray caps thrusting out of the soil. Eagerly, I pluck them from the earth and hold them to my nose like some strange flower. They smell earthy and rich: the wealth of the woods. I drop them into my bag and comb the area for more. I find two more little patches, and am careful to leave the smallest mushrooms to spore the area later on.

            I stop to rest on a fallen log. My ankle is swollen and sore and I know I should head back. But it is so peaceful in the woods, and I am so tired of being cooped up indoors as invalid. The cool damp of the decaying wood beneath me seeps into the seat of my jeans, and the sun feels like a warm caress on my upturned face. I breathe deep the patient strength of the trees and drink in the stillness around me. I decide, “Just a little further,” and climb painfully to my feet.

            I could see myself going wild and living like my ancestors had. I could be young again, roaming the woods every day, hunting for sustenance, turning brown with sun and strong with exercise. There was a part of me that wanted to live next to nature, through all of her moods, a part of me that believed she could help heal the hurts in my body and in my heart.

            If I can't live with nature, I can at least visit her once in a while, and take her lessons home with me, to keep in my heart like the rewards of a successful hunt. Everything has its season, and seasons come and go �" nothing stays the same. A moment is a fleeting thing, but in the end it’s all we have.


© 2015 Courtney

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Thank you for this, for it is the sort of thing I love, too. When someone writes about that which they know, it comes through convincingly and clear, and I'm pretty sure that's the case, here. I saw an error or two, such as the use of "then" instead of "than".

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Added on April 14, 2015
Last Updated on April 14, 2015
Tags: hunt, healing, courtney, hurd, essay, contemplative, morel, mushroom, nature



Platteville, WI

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A Story by Courtney